My criminal debut happened at the end of second grade at St. Mary’s Grammar School in downtown Trenton, New Jersey.
I desperately needed money to buy the most recent issues of Batman and Superman, ten cents each at the State & Broad Newstand. Usually I got my change from Mom’s pocketbook, but my devious seven-year-old mind had another idea today. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent worried me because I was always afraid their secret identities would be exposed—but instead my larceny exposed me.
Sister Alphonse addressed the class, “Children, something disturbing has happened. Maria’s lunch money is missing. She had it in her bookbag. If anyone has seen it, please tell me privately. Until it is found there will be no recess.”
“Oh, sister, really?” the kids moaned. Accusing stares scanned our classroom. I felt bad. I liked recess too. At lunch, I approached Sister Alphonse. “I took Maria’s money,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
She gave me a stony look. “Rodney, I’m disappointed. You were doing so well. I must consider your punishment. Return Maria’s lunch money quickly.”
“Go now, remove yourself from my sight.”
Ashamed, I gave Maria her two dimes back. “Hmph. Should have known it was you,” she said, before running off to tell our teacher. At the end of the day, Sister Alphonse pulled me aside in the hallway.
“Rodney, we had high hopes for you. But this shows you cannot be trusted. We were going to promote you to 4th grade, skipping 3rd. But you will not be advancing as we intended. Let that sink in—and never steal again. Some of us felt you should stay back, but you will be moving to 3rd grade because your grades and attendance are good.”
Garbage! I thought, 4th grade could have been fun. Mom would’ve been proud. What do I tell her? I felt a sense of great remorse, especially after I chatted with my friends and learned that Ray, Joey, Marianne and Angela were all advancing to 4th grade. Oh no! I thought, I could’ve been with them. I’m going to miss all our fun together because of two lousy dimes.
But I didn’t miss out on a unique life. That event—my own larceny and the punishment I deserved and received—eventually helped shape the course of my entire life.
I graduated from grade school a year later than I might have, then met and kissed a perky red-headed girl at the summer dance in high school. We began dating. I drove cross country with a friend to southern California for college in 1968, and experimented with others my age trying out new things. Returned to Jersey and shared that free-wheeling scene with six guys and one girl in a big house we called Charenton Asylum, indicative of our wild ways. Had no cares in the world except to protest the Vietnam War and listen to Bob Dylan sing Lay, Lady Lay. Took a job at a real asylum, the State Psychiatric Hospital, feeding geriatric patients—until landing in computer operations in another department. A confirmed hippie, I studied the Tao Te Ching, reflected on the condition of my soul, then discovered the beautiful teachings of the Baha’i Faith, which urged me toward honesty and truthfulness:
Beautify your tongues, O people, with truthfulness, and adorn your souls with the ornament of honesty. Beware, O people, that ye deal not treacherously with any one. Be ye the trustees of God amongst His creatures, and the emblems of His generosity amidst His people. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 296.
Should any one of you enter a city, he should become a centre of attraction by reason of his sincerity, his faithfulness and love, his honesty and fidelity, his truthfulness and loving-kindness towards all the peoples of the world, so that the people of that city may cry out and say: ‘This man is unquestionably a Baha’i, for his manners, his behaviour, his conduct, his morals, his nature, and disposition reflect the attributes of the Baha’is.’ – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 70.
In June of 1971, under sunny skies, that perky redhead and I married each other in a Baha’i ceremony in Washington Crossing State Park. That set my life on a new, fulfilling course with two outstanding children, a long professional career in public service, and an active role as a confirmed Baha’i trying to serve humanity and my community.
That path changed my entire life. I stopped drinking and doing drugs. I stopped cursing, lying and stealing. I elevated my view of women and the inherent goodness of the human race. I now hold kindness, fairness, and justice as ideals. When I retired I became an author and started an editing and publishing business.
I learned how fulfilling it can feel to be a contributing citizen in the world—all because of how I felt after I stole two shiny dimes in June of 1958. There is no telling where these small events in our lives will lead, but the will to choose what actions we take make all the difference.
For most of my childhood and youth I led a misguided life, out of touch with God and spirituality. I was in denial of the changes I needed to make in my thinking and acting. It took the power of loving someone more than myself to open my eyes and heart to the reality of the spirit and the age.
Love, directed outwardly, has that power, and must be treasured when we find it. Love, directed inwardly, means recognizing our faults and correcting them, waking up to reality and accepting the consequences of our actions. The Baha’i teachings taught me that:
God … does not only punish the wrongdoings of His children. He chastises because He is just, and He chastens because He loves. Having chastened them, He cannot, in His great mercy, leave them to their fate. Indeed, by the very act of chastening them He prepares them for the mission for which He has created them. “My calamity is My providence,” He, by the mouth of Bahaullah, has assured them, “outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy.” – Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, pp. 15-16.
God in his great mercy always gives us a chance to redeem ourselves. We do that by accepting His message, eternal in the past, eternal in the future:
O Son of Being! Love me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 4.